As a legal aide lawyer, Californian Bill McKay’s fight for the little man and the environment brings the Democratic Party to his door in their search for a candidate to run against incumbent Republican Crocker Jarmon. Eager to make a difference, McKay agrees to run, insisting he retain control of a campaign that quickly teaches him what he may never have wanted to know about politics.
Laying it right out on the line – watch this film. Though now 26-years old, it feels as though it could have been made this year for the issues it addresses and the questions it poses about the political process and what candidates must do in order to find their place in the election machine. It is often tempting to think that the problems Americans face in our present time are somehow new ones. Or that the current election we are anticipating finds its candidates employing unused battle tactics that we find surprisingly disturbing or distasteful in some way. Though we understand that it wouldn’t be civilized or reasonable to expect candidates to engage in an Aaron Sorkin-esque verbal fencing match that would get our heart rates going for a change, deep down, we want that – we want to be inspired. From The American President, to Dave, to The West Wing, and others, films and television programs have answered the call and soothed our worried souls with characters who have consciously engaged the world around them with a sense of justice and morality and renewed hope that we dream we will one day find in Washington, putting our fears of betrayal and potential deception to rest.
Robert Redford’s work in this film, and others including Pakula’s All The Presidents Men answers this call in what feels like a refreshingly truthful way. Rather than idealize the process and make heroic the people who drive it, The Candidate quietly reveals what happens to a good man with good intentions who gets caught up in a desire to win that ultimately makes him wonder what it was all for.
Son of an ex-Governor of California, Redford is Bill McKay, a legal aide attorney who has worked to become everything his politically-minded father is not – a man of the people. After reading a magazine article about McKay’s work in California, Democratic political expert, Marvin Lucas [Peter Boyle] meets McKay in the midst of a fight for an important watershed bill as he tries to get his car back from a demanding mechanic, illustrating his ability to handle more than one crisis at a time with grace. Lucas wants McKay to run for Senate; McKay watched his father work the system for twenty years, and though it was good for his father; he wasn’t sure what it did for anybody else. With no car, McKay accepts an offer from Lucas of a ride home.
Bill’s wife Nancy [Karen Carlson], a photographer is supportive of the Senate race idea and Lucas tempts McKay by saying he can do what he wants, say what he wants and do what he please with a guarantee he’s going to lose. While Lucas wonders whether McKay will be able to put his ass on the line Marvin questions whether he can put his ass on the line; McKay questions whether it’s worth it. In search of an answer, McKay attends a rally and watches Republican Crocker Jarmon [Don Porter] speak. It is remarkable to hear what Jarmon has to say as he tells his followers that he will tell ‘big brother’ to get lost, while he intends to let industry expand in spite of environmental concerns while also revealing his plans to limit welfare.
Jarmon’s promises to spend another 18 years in the Senate to ‘make the country stronger’ and move it into a brighter future. McKay tries to speak with Jarmon, who humors him momentarily, commenting on his football prowess before he quickly moves on. McKay announces his candidacy explaining he’s doing so because incumbent Jarmon is out of touch with people’s lives and needs. He’s for welfare, busing, but doesn’t have a quick politicalized answer for what he’d do about property taxes. Even more confounding for the press, McKay doesn’t have a platform and won’t take photos with his staff because, as he says, they are not responsible for him.
Jarmon’s platform is familiar – just turn on CNN. McKay’s PR man wants to sell him as his ‘own man’ in contrast to the older Jarmon and asks that McKay get his haircut and sideburns chopped. Inspired by his youth and off-the-cuff manner, the team fully supports and exploits the idea that McKay is new on the scene yet not unfamiliar to politics thanks to his much more conservative father. But whatever his vicarious political experience is meant to be, McKay’s first ventures out into the public are uncertain and even bumbling as he chews gum, quietly offering his hand to workers who mostly pass him by. It’s incredibly endearing, but the lack of polish makes him look amateurish on purpose, further emphasizing the changes to come.
For as the banquets, staged meetings with the people on the street, and interviews with the press continue and grow in scope, McKay sports a new, shorter haircut, darker suit and more political face, turning him into something more like the politicians he once rejected and less his own man. He struggles to find his voice in vivid and compelling scenes that place him at a microphone, blinded by lights that obscure his view of the audience he is trying to reach. Speaking form the heart, McKay admits, “Our lives are more and more determined by forces that overwhelm the individual…. Maybe these questions can’t be raised in a political campaign; maybe people aren’t ready to listen. But I’m gonna try” – and he asks the people to give him the benefit of the doubt. Rather than dismissing him outright for this almost show of weakness, the audience listening to him applauds as he abruptly leaves the stage with this open appeal for support.
As they get deeper into the campaign and the issues, McKay starts to find himself at odds with his position. When, in a rehearsal for a press conference McKay unequivocally states he’s for women’s right to choose, all other handlers turn to Lucas who says he can’t say that. During a review of the footage from McKay’s campaign stops, his open criticism of the oil companies and big business irks Lucas because he has problems with the unions as it is. The campaign’s visit to Watts, and the post-primary victory banquet featuring an interesting cameo appearance from Natalie Wood present us with excellent insight into what these campaign stops are really about. The possibly crazy man with the dog in Watts is scared off. With little to really say to one another, Natalie and McKay discuss yogurt, with her suggesting he try putting fresh fruit in it while reporters flock to her side to ask her questions. Throughout, there is a lovely sense of chaos, for as the campaign grows, the staff gets bigger and we have no idea who anyone is.
When McKay learns he’s actually sure to lose, he finds he wants to win and agrees to more TV spots and appearances, pushing his ‘own man’ image to a point where a television news anchor even comments on his devolving into just another politician. When the press wants to know whether the rumor that Bill’s father John J. McKay [Melvyn Douglas] actually backs Jarmon over his son is true, the team goes through a series of painfully comic events that lead to Bill going to see his father in spite of his early insistence that he be kept out of it. The elder McKay looks at his son with an appreciative and mocking smile when he offers him something to eat, driving the knife in further when he says, “Any man running for the Senate has to want something, right Bud?” In a handful of short scenes with these two accomplished actors, one where his father shoots a terrified rabbit with a shotgun, we get a clear idea about their history. When John J. later calls his son a politician, there’s something damning about the comment that strikes a look of terror in Bill’s eyes.
Writer Jeremy Larner won the Academy Award for his original script, and it’s no small surprise. When McKay hears he could lose, he offers to quit, prompting this wonderful exchange between Peter Boyle and Robert Redford:
Lucas [Boyle]: “You can’t go back, you’re the Democratic nominee for Senator!”
McKay [Redford]: “You make that sound like a death sentence!”Larner presents us with the kind political animals that could find a fire in Malibu ‘perfect’ who nonetheless remain real people no matter how limited their screen time. The handlers want to find a way to address the “purely political problem of reassuring the suburban mentality” while the newsman calls McKay’s message into question and suggests that maybe “virtue is too great a strain for the long haul of the campaign.”
This is a deeply moving touchstone in this film that Ritchie comes back to often with skill. It is interesting to note that campaign staffers who saw the film felt it captured the spirit of the process so well they thought a scene between Boyle and Redford should be classified information. Production-wise it’s also interesting to note that the creators created a feeling of a real campaign by sending advance men out to locations where Redford would appear, handing out materials as if it were all for real. One wishes it were most ‘for real’ after watching Jarmon and McKay debate live on television. Given one minute to sum up his argument, McKay chooses to call attention to the subjects that didn’t come up instead of rehashing his position on those that did – and they are ones we still try not to deal with as a country to day: issues of race, poverty, hatred. He points to the truth that this is a society divided by fear, hatred and violence and states that until we talk about what this society really is he doesn’t know how we’re going to change it. This sends Jarmon shouting, irate at his opponent for suggesting violence and eventually resolves itself into a spin session that leaves us feeling as desolate about the possibilities as McKay does.
As the credits roll, if you sit through them, another in a series of patriotic tuba-based songs that play throughout the film ends, and a rather familiar American political anthem begins, pointing to what might be young McKay’s future. And in spite of all the political revelations and quiet certainty that this man will never be able to make much of a difference, it is comforting to know that he will try. It is comforting to know that there are men and women out there willing to work 20 hour days in the hope of achieving what they think is the common good. And that there are stories like this one that inspire us to try as well.